Category Archives: Christianity

Luther on Justifying Faith

Martin Luther wrote that “The reason why some people do not understand why faith alone justifies is that they do not know what faith is.”  Yet more from McGrath ‘s book:

Three points relating to Luther’s idea of faith may be singled out as having special importance to his doctrine of justification….these points are:

Faith has a personal, rather than a purely historical, reference.
Faith concerns trust in the promises of God.
Faith unites the believer to Christ.


I have often spoken about two different kinds of faith.  The first goes like this:  you believe it is true that Christ is the person who is described and proclaimed in the gospels, but you do not believe that he is such a person for you.  You doubt if you can receive that from him, and you think: ‘Yes, I’m sure he is that person for someone else (like Peter and Paul, and for religious and holy people).  But is he that person for me?  Can I confidently expect to receive everything from him that the saints expect?’ You see, this faith is nothing.  It receives nothing of Christ, and tastes nothing of him either.  It cannot feel joy, not love of him or for him.  This is a faith related to Christ, but not a faith in Christ…The only faith which deserves to be called Christian is this: you believe unreservedly that it is not only for Peter and the saints that Christ is such a person, but also for you yourself–in fact, for you more than anyone else (emphasis added).

It is necessary that anyone who is about to confess his sins put his trust only and completely in the most gracious promise of God.  That is, he must be certain that the one who has promised forgiveness to whoever confesses his sins will most faithfully fulfill this promise…[W]e are not to glory on account of the worthiness or adequacy of our confession (because there is no such worthiness or adequacy) but on account of the truth and certainty of God’s promises.

…Even if your faith is weak, I still have exactly the same treasure and the same Christ as others.  There is no difference…It is like two people, each of whom owns a hundred gulden.  One may carry them around in a paper sack, the other in an iron chest.  But despite these differences, they both own the same treasure.  Thus the Christ who you and I own is one and the same, irrespective of the strength or weakness of your faith or mine.

I like this restatement by McGrath:

The content of faith thus matters far more than its intensity.  It is pointless to trust passionately in someone who is not worthy of trust; even a modicum of faith in someone who is totally reliable is vastly to be preferred.  Trust is not, however, an occasional attitude.  For Luther, it is an undeviating trusting outlook upon life, a constant stance of conviction of the trustworthiness of the promises of God.

How faith unites the believer with Christ is more mysterious.  Luther again:

Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.  As Paul teaches us, Christ and the soul become one flesh by this mystery (Ephesians 5:31-2).  And if they are one flesh and the marriage is real– in fact, it is the most perfect of all marriages, …then it follows that everything that they have is held in common, whether good or evil.  So the believer can boast of the glory in whatever Christ possesses, as though it were his or her own; and whatever the believer has, Christ claims as his own.  Let us see how this works and how it benefits us.  Christ is full of grace, life and salvation.  The human soul is full of sin, death and damnation.  Now let faith come between them.  Sin, death and damnation will then be Christ’s; and grace, life and salvation will be the believer’s.



Luther and Understanding the Righteousness of God.

More from Reformation Thought: An Introduction, this from the chapter titled “The Doctrine of Justification by Faith”:

[During the period 1513-1516 Luther] understood the ‘righteousness of God’ to refer to an impartial divine attribute.  God judges individuals with complete impartiality.  If the individual has met the basic precondition for justification, he or she is justified; if he has not, he or she is condemned….He gives each individual exactly what he or she merits—nothing more and nothing less.
….Luther’s growing pessimism concerning the abilities of sinful humanity led him to despair of his own salvation, which increasingly seemed an impossibility. ‘How can I find a gracious God’, he asked.
This was no mere theological problem of purely academic interest….it concerned him, personally…For Luther, as for so many others, the crucial question of human existence concerned how to clinch one’s salvation…It was the central question on his personal agenda.
It is not know exactly what occurred, or when it occurred, but Luther finally had a breakthrough, and “it changed Luther’s outlook on life completely, and ultimately propelled him into the forefront of the Reformation struggle.
Here is Luther’s own description of his personal difficulties with the problem of the ‘righteousness of God’:
I had certainly wanted to understand Paul in his letter to the Romans. But what prevented me from doing so was not so much cold feet as that one phrase in the first chapter: ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it’ (Romans 1:17). For I hated that phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’, which I had been taught to understand as the righteousness by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners.
Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God. I also could not believe that I had pleased him with my works. Far from loving that righteous God who punished sinners, I actually hated him….I was in desperation to know what Paul meant in this passage. At last, as I meditated day and night on the relation of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written, the righteous person shall live by faith’, I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous person lives by the gift of God (faith); and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed’, to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous person lives by faith’. This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment I saw the whole face of Scripture in a new light…And now, where I had once hated the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’, I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of phrases, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise to me.
McGrath’s comment:
Luther’s insight, which he describes in this autobiographical passage, is that the God of the Christian gospel is not a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits, but a merciful and gracious God who bestows righteousness upon sinners as a gift.

Faith is Not the Same as Certainty

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I’ve been reading Alistair E. McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction. In the chapter titled “The Doctrine of Justification by Faith” one of the subjects he examines is the reformers’ thought on the assurance of salvation.   McGrath:

For Luther, as for the reformers in general, one could rest assured of one’s salvation. Salvation was grounded in the faithfulness of God to God’s promises of mercy; to fail to have confidence in salvation was, in effect, to doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of God.  Yet this must not be seen as a supreme confidence in God, untroubled by doubt.  Faith is not the same as certainty; although the theological foundation of Christian faith may be secure, the human perception of and commitment to this foundation may waver.                                                                                                This point is brought out clearly by Calvin, often thought to be the most confident of all the reformers in relation to matters of faith.  His definition of faith certainly seems to point in this direction:

Now we shall have a right definition of faith if we say that it is a steady certain knowledge of the divine benevolence towards us, which is founded upon the truth of the gracious promise of God in Christ, and is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Yet the theological certainty of this statement does not, according to Calvin, necessarily lead to psychological security.  It is perfectly consistent with a sustained wrestling with doubt and anxiety on the part of the believer.

When we stress that faith ought to be certain and secure, we do not have in mind a certainty without doubt, or a security without any anxiety. Rather, we affirm that believers have a perpetual struggle with their own lack of faith, and are far from possessing a peaceful conscience, never interrupted by any disturbance. On the other hand, we want to deny that they may fall out of, or depart from, their confidence in the divine mercy, no matter how much they may be troubled.

In his study Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Edward A. Dower writes:
If the bare words of his definition of faith make it ‘steady and certain knowledge’, according to Calvin, we must notice that such faith never is realized. We could formulate a description of existing faith for him as ‘a steady and certain knowledge invariably attacked by vicious doubts.
Amazon offers reasonably priced used copies of the third edition, which I have.   Mine is heavily marked in my own hand.


Our Comfort

When in the hour of deepest need
We know not where to look for aid;
When days and nights of anxious thought
No help or counsel yet have brought,

Our comfort then is this alone:
That we may meet before your throne
And cry to you, O faithful God,
For rescue from our sorry lot.

For you have made a promise true
To pardon those who flee to you,
Through him whose name alone is great,
Our Savior and our advocate.

And so we come, O God, today
And all our woes before you lay;
For sorely tried, cast down, we stand,
Perplexed by fears on every hand.

Oh, from our sins hide not your face;
Absolve us through your boundless grace!
Be with us in our anguish still!
Free us at last from every ill!

So we with all our hearts each day
To you our glad thanksgiving pay,
Then walk obedient to your Word,
And now and ever praise you, Lord.

How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds

This is one Sacred Harp hymn that is recognizable to many of us who grew up singing traditional hymns in church.  Titled Ortonville in Sacred Harp books, my 1991 edition includes an epigraph referencing Song of Solomon 1:3, “Thy name is as ointment poured forth.”

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fears, and drives away his fears.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary rest, and to the weary rest.

Dear Name! the rock on which I build,
My shield and hiding place;
My never-failing treasury filled
With boundless stores of grace, with boundless stores of grace.

Text by John Newton, 1779
Tune by Thomas Hastings, 1837

And here it is sung to the tune St. Peter.

Ortonville is the tune I remember best from childhood, but some churches I attended used the St. Peter one.

Come Ye Disconsolate

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure,
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.”

Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

This hymn was written by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), the third verse later altered to the current version by another hymn writer, Thomas Hastings (1784-1872).

From a site dedicated to hymns, Wordwise Hymns:

This is a great hymn of comfort, encouragement for the disconsolate in the face of sorrow and loss….According to the promises of the Scriptures, the Lord is ready to help those who come to Him in faith. And who are the ones who need grace, and mercy, and comfort? Two particular examples are given in the hymn. Those who are sorrowing, who have “wounded hearts” (CH-1); those who have sinned and strayed from the path, and come in a spirit of repentance (CH-2).

For each believer the hymn reassures us, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” Through Christ, our great High Priest at the Father’s right hand, there is “mercy and…grace to help in time of need,” and we are invited to “come boldly” before the throne and seek it (Heb. 4:14-16). “Boldly.” That does not mean irreverently, or carelessly, but honestly and openly, with cheerful confidence that we’re coming to One who understands and has compassion on us.

For more, including the story behind another song penned by Moore, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms, go here.